Hey, Remember the Olympics?

Hosting the Olympics is a monumental undertaking that often leaves behind rusted stadiums and financial losses. So why do nations compete to do it? This episode examines the political history of the games, and the soft power that countries hope to gain by hosting them.

July 15, 2020 — 35:50 min
Play Button Pause Button
0:00 0:00


Gabrielle Sierra

Podcast Host and Producer Full Bio

Episode Guests

Jules Boykoff

Professor of Political Science, Pacific University

Katharine Moon

Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College

Show Notes

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been postponed, but Japan is still working around the clock to preserve them. And they aren’t alone in their zeal. Despite mounting evidence that hosting the games leads to bloated budgets and white elephant infrastructure, the soft-power appeal of the Olympics lives on. In this episode, experts weigh in on the geopolitical role of the global games, and discuss whether lighting the torch on your own turf is worth the investment.


From CFR


Andrew Zimbalist on Costs of the Olympics,” James M. Lindsay, The President’s Inbox


The Economics of Hosting the Olympic Games,” James McBride


China’s Olympic Nightmare,” Elizabeth Economy, Foreign Affairs


Will South Korea's Olympic Diplomacy Last?,” Scott A. Snyder


The Mixed Record of Sports Diplomacy,” Eleanor Albert and Jonathan Grix

Read More


The Olympics are political. The IOC ban denies reality—and athletes their voice.,” Jules Boykoff, NBC


The Tokyo Olympics’ Staggering Price Tag and Where It Stands in History,” Wall Street Journal 


As Covid Cases Hit Record High in Tokyo, Can the Olympic Bubble Hold?,” New York Times


How Olympians Are Fighting to Put Athletes' Mental Health First,” TIME


Skipping the Olympics is ‘not an option’ for many advertisers,” New York Times


Olympic Protest Rules: Tweets Are Fine, Kneeling Is Not,” New York Times


The Olympics Have Always Been Political,” Atlantic 


The Solution to Beijing’s Soft-Power Deficit Is Staring It in the Face,” Foreign Policy 


Olympic athletes are banned from protesting at Tokyo Games, IOC says,” Business Insider


From unfazed to unprecedented: Inside the decision to postpone the Olympics,” Washington Post


The Coronavirus and the Postponement of the Olympics, Explained,” New York Times


The Rise and Fall of Soft Power,” Foreign Policy

Watch or Listen


Politics and the Olympics,” Guardian 


18 Times Politics Trumped Sport in Olympic Games’ History,” Global Citizen


Why Hosting The Olympics Isn’t Worth It Anymore,” Business Insider


The story behind this iconic Olympics protest,” Vox


The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed to 2021,” CNN 


Olympics Meets Politics,” New York Times    



I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a huge sports fan. I don’t follow the NBA, and I tend to wander away from the TV during football games. But I do love to watch the Olympics. And that’s because it's actually super cool to see whole nations rallying behind one team. It becomes something more than a game. It becomes this uniting cultural moment. It’s like a global holiday. And so, with a little bit of extra couch time on my hands, I was very ready to tune into this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. The perfect distraction. 

But, the July 2020 Olympic Games aren't going to be held this month. They’ve been postponed. By a full year! 

This decision wasn’t made lightly and in fact, Japan is working around the clock to try to figure out how to keep their games, despite a global pandemic. It’s part of a long story. For decades, just like their athletes, countries have competed fiercely to host the games, despite mounting evidence that they usually represent a significant financial loss. And that made us ask why? If not money, what do the games offer that’s so special and worth so much effort? 

I’m Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, the Olympics, Soft Power, and the deep-running politics of the world games.

Jules BOYKOFF: For many sports, the Olympics is the apex of what they can achieve as athletes. And it's a chance for the world to see incredible, incredible athletes out there on the world stage. 

My name is Jules Boykoff and I teach political science at Pacific University in Oregon.

Professor Boykoff has written four books about the Olympics. And as it turns out, he’s also a former member of the U.S. Men’s Olympic Soccer Team. 

BOYKOFF: And that is really why the Olympics have stuck around and been so successful, were it not for the athletes, we wouldn't really have the Olympic games. Of course the money shuffle has become a big part of that, we can talk about that later. But for athletes in lesser known sports say, curling in the Winter Olympics, or maybe, equestrian or something like that in the Summer Olympics, this is their one chance to make it big. 

Katharine MOON: You know, I think we have to remember that the Olympics, the Olympic games themselves are a value or ideal-driven event. 

I'm Katharine Moon and I am a professor of political science at Wellesley College. I study issues related to East Asia, particularly the Koreas and I love to talk about culture, and values in international politics.

As much as we say it is about pure athleticism and fair competition, it really was and is about ideals as human beings. The human spirit to strive for excellence, and to do one's best, and to be proud to be with others who are excellent in their fields. And I think that's what drives people to go to the Olympics and to watch the Olympics. 

NBC: 4:08-4:10 Get the gold medals ready! 


Olympic: 1:30-1:32 It’s changed my life completely. 


NBC: 3:34-3:37 Oh my gosh! Unbelievable! 


Olympic: 1:38-1:44 It’s all cultures and all values coming together...


RT: 0:00-0:07 Chanting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIH8PSg4yi8&feature=youtu.be

NBC: 0:27-0:29 This is huge. This is really big.


Gabrielle SIERRA: So it's July and you know, we were supposed to start watching the Summer Olympics in what, like about a week. So what the heck happened?

BOYKOFF: Yeah, the Olympics got coronavirused and-

SIERRA: (laughs).

BOYKOFF: ... they had to push it back for a year. 

BOYKOFF: When you look back at that moment, there were calls to cancel the Olympics. There were calls to postpone the Olympics and the members of the International Olympic Committee seemed determined to press ahead with the games. This at a time when other sports were shutting down, world soccer was shutting down various sports leagues around the world. And yet the International Olympic Committee felt like they needed to press ahead. And the real reason why the IOC, The International Olympic Committee, finally acted was because Canada basically said they were going to do a de facto boycott if the games were held in 2020. They were soon followed by the national Olympic committees from Australia, Portugal and Germany. And when that all happened, the International Olympic Committee had no choice, but to postpone. And that's exactly what they did. So now they're slated for July 2021.

ITV: 0:02-0:04 The inevitable has finally been confirmed. https://youtu.be/yZgw2RFBZtY?t=2 

CNN: 0:00-0:10 The signs are all over Tokyo, symbols of what was supposed to be a Japanese revival. A comeback crushed, at least for now.


ABC: 0:30-0:40 We’re talking about an event that’s been seven years in the making, billions of dollars spent, involving 200 countries and 11,000 athletes. You can’t just pick another date on the calendar.


The Olympic games have only been cancelled three times. The first time was in 1916 during World War I. The second and third time were in 1940 and 1944, due to World War II. It’s still unclear whether the 2020 games will become a fourth, historic cancellation. The current plan is to begin them on July 24th, 2021. But many experts are skeptical of this timeline, arguing that there is no guarantee that the coronavirus will be fully under control in a year. Still, the struggle to preserve the 2020 Games shows just how invested host countries become in success. 

SIERRA: What's at stake for Japan as the situation plays out?

BOYKOFF: Well, Japan has plunged a lot of money and prestige and human capital into making the games happen. If we think back to when they were originally bidding on the Olympics, they said that the entire escapade would cost $7.3 billion. But by the time the summer rolled around, they had spent some $28 billion, according to an audit by the Japanese government. And so that's four times what they had originally planned. Postponing means adding anywhere from 2 to $6 billion, those are the best guesses that we have now. So what's at stake for Japan is they've already spent way more money than they expected. And now they might not even get the Olympics to actually happen. 

MOON: Prime Minister Abe's government had hoped to use tourism around the Olympics as a way to bring in the capital and the entrepreneurial energy that he's been seeking for his country. The primary reason why Japan has wanted to host the Olympics is to jump start or jump start again it's downtrodden economy. And I think this has obviously failed given the pandemic, but also in some ways, my own belief is that it was a misplaced hope. Japan's desire to get back on its feet economically as a major productive global power based specifically on high-tech, AI, artificial intelligence, as well as energy efficient vehicles. That these are not things that can be accomplished through the Olympics.

SIERRA: Do you think that Abe sees the Olympics as important to his legacy?

MOON: I think every political leader would regard the Olympics or in countries that highly value international football, hosting a FIFA World Cup, these are major events. And we know that that's the case in more recent years with Brazil trying to do the Olympics and FIFA World Cup. It puts a country on the map or it draws attention to that country that already may have been on the map. So every leader is interested, but whether or not every leader gets the kind of positive effect and impact that they would like is really questionable.

The stakes for this type of positive branding are even higher right now. Some see the next games as an opportunity to be the site of the world’s comeback from the pandemic and economic recession. It’s a symbol that Japan would love to claim for itself - and that China, the next host, would be happy to receive if the summer games end up cancelled. 

MOON: Whether or not a country gains economically, I think they like the idea that they might be able to gain. Especially through tourist dollars. And more importantly through name recognition and as a way to show off their country. It's almost like you size each other up through the athletics as well as through the economic and political competition and power games. And so, there's a certain kind of a surrogacy I think that goes on, but for the most part, they want money. They want tourists and the tourists are important because of the ability to spread the good news about the country. Back in 2008, in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, both the Chinese government and the Chinese society were really mobilizing average citizens, to learn how to smile. These people were trained how to smile, especially for Western tourists who would be coming for the Olympic games. And the 100,000 or so volunteers for the Olympics games, uh, themselves, they were given formal smiling training sessions.

SIERRA: Oh my gosh! (laughs)

MOON: Yeah, so you know, this was all a matter of looking appealing as a host society. Looking welcoming, because then tourists would go back and say, "Wow, those Chinese people. They were so friendly. They were kind. They smile all the time." I mean, it's a little ludicrous that one would spend one's energy that way, but on the other hand, that's how important this image-making enterprise called the Olympics can be to certain societies.

The world loves the Olympics. And the attention of billions of viewers seems to promise an opportunity for host countries to redefine themselves on the world stage. And when you look at it that way, those 100,000 professionally-trained smiles start to seem a little less absurd. 

But the Olympics weren’t always what they are now. How did we get here? When did the world’s cities start spending billions of dollars to host ski jumpers and pole vaulters every few years?

HistoryPod: 0:06-0:11 On the 6th of April, 1896, the first modern Olympic Games opened in Athens.


British Movietone: 0:04-0:10 Specially built olympic stadium in Berlin is filled to capacity, as Hitler arrives to preside at the opening ceremony of the 11th modern Olympiad.


Channel 4 News: 0:13-0:20 The Mexico Games of ‘68 two African American athletes stood on the winners podium, heads bowed, gloved hands raised in a black power salute.


Mountain Lake PBS: 0:09-0:13; 0:19-0:23 The 1980 Winter Olympics are remembered today for the Miracle on Ice; one of the greatest moments in American sports history.


NBC 1:49:56-1:50-11 Every Olympics provides a snapshot of a city and of a country at a point in time. This one was more compelling than most, as China’s rise and transformation is the global story, not only of the moment but likely of the foreseeable future.


BOYKOFF: So the Modern Olympics were the brainchild of a plucky Baron from France named Baron Pierre de Coubertin. And he was an aristocrat who was very much dismayed by the fact that the French had just gotten drubbed in a war. And he thought that he could use sports to toughen up what he called at the time, a flabby youth who just gotten too soft.


BOYKOFF: It sounds a little bit curmudgeonly, and kind of odd, but I say all that to say that the Olympics were sort of built on a bed of contradiction. On one hand, the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, wanted to start the Olympics to toughen up the youth, to get them ready for war. Uh, but he also used the games as this big mechanism for peace.

He thought that the women of the time should not participate in the Olympics. In fact, if you look at his writings, he said, things like women should only be involved in the Olympics to place the victory laurels on the heads of men who won the gold medals and silver medals.

SIERRA: Oh, thanks.

BOYKOFF: He also had a lot of the uh, racist sentiments of his time. So he was a man of great sexism and racism. He was also a man of great persuasion and he persuaded a lot of people to come along. 

SIERRA: Wow. So he's got a great name, but you know, mixed bag there on the goals and the original intent of the Olympic games.

BOYKOFF: Well, it's interesting too Gabby because when he started the Olympics, he got together a bunch of other Dukes and Counts and Barons to create the International Olympic Committee. So there was a real aristocratic flavor from the very beginning of the Olympic games. 

The growth of the Olympic games into the global extravaganza we now know was slow and steady. Only 11 nations officially participated in the 1896 games, but by 1936, at the infamous Berlin Olympics, that number had grown to 49. These games were also the first to be televised and watched by a global audience. With this audience came advertisers, a process that culminated in the 1984 games, sponsored in part by McDonalds. These became the most financially successful in modern history. 

By the Atlanta games of 1996, nearly every nation on Earth was represented, but it wasn’t until the London games of 2012 that all participating nations sent female athletes. Took more than a century, but we got there eventually. Cheers baron!  

SIERRA: What trends have you noticed over the decades about what kind of countries are bidding or hosting the Olympics? 

BOYKOFF: Sure. Well, for starters, a lot of the bidding was incredibly competitive, especially in the 1990s say and moving forward. But in recent years there's been the rise of a lot of criticism from critical journalists, from academic writing, from activists in different cities and human rights workers that has put it in a lot of people's heads to maybe have a little more caution in how they approach the Olympics. In terms of the wider trends of why we're not seeing more bids, those trends have also become more clear through time and those trends are overspending. So I call it Etch A Sketch economics, where during the bid phase of the Olympics, the bidders say that the Olympics will only cost so much, but by the time the Olympics are actually staged, it's actually many times that, the Tokyo games are a perfect example of that. A second trend is white elephant stadiums because the Olympics has a lot of specialty sports like canoeing in these whitewater rapid type scenarios. You have to build these special venues that really aren't going to be used afterwards and they often sit in disrepair. So there are many pictures from say, Athens where like the softball field is just a bunch of weeds, or you look at more recently Rio de Janeiro, where in the Deodoro complex, where they built this specialized canoe run, that's all boarded up and nobody can really use it anymore. 

A third trend is displacement and gentrification, 1.5 million people were displaced to make way for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. I lived in Rio de Janeiro in the lead up to the 2016 Olympics as a Fulbright research fellow and I saw for my own eyes displacement happening. There some 77,000 people were displaced to make way for the Olympics. 

Another trend with the Olympics is the militarization of the public sphere. You're seeing more and more people around the world, viewing the Olympics as a terrorist target. This was directly stated by Chechen rebel, Doku Umarov, in regards to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he said, ‘that's a legitimate terrorist target.’ And of course we know from the political history of the Olympics, that there was a terrorist attack at Munich in 1972 and another one in Atlanta in 1996. And so cities essentially use the Olympics like their own private ATM machine when it comes to securitizing the games, getting all the special weapons and laws that they would never be able to get during normal political times. And those special weapons and laws stick around after the games. 

A fifth trend that we see time and again, is what a lot of people are calling ‘greenwashing,’ which is to say making big environmental promises during the bid phase, and then not following through when it actually comes to the delivery of the Olympics. And so it's those trends that more and more people are becoming aware of when they think about the Olympics that is kind of scaring off cities from wanting to bid, 'cause the word is out on the street that while the Olympics are full of the world's most wonderful and talented athletes, they come with a whole lot of social and political baggage as well.

Rusting stadiums, unfulfilled promises, terrorist threats, and deep financial losses. The list of reasons not to host the Olympics is a long one. And yet we still see countries like South Korea, Japan, China, France, and the United States spending millions of dollars to win bids to host the games. Why? 

MOON: I think there is always the perennial hope that, "This time it'll be different for my country. That this time my country will be able to launch itself into the global economy in a stronger light or be recognized as a global power." If we look at Brazil in 2016, that was the expectation. But also the reality is that even if you don't make a whole lot of money or even break even in preparing for the Olympics, it does put people in your country to work. To build stadiums and to renovate facilities. It also raises the innovation and the upgrading skills of a people. Especially if you are a developing or an emerging economy. I think that when you add the easy access of different marketing tools, advertising as well as numerous companies in the sporting world who are there to participate and to sell their products, many countries can easily see these opportunities as potential paths toward further global integration and possibly growth.

SIERRA: It seems like some of what we've been talking about has to do with soft power. So I was wondering if you can maybe explain a bit. You know, what is soft power?  

MOON: Soft power is in contrast to the notion of hard power, which of course is military power as well as economic power that can be clearly measured. Trade volume, for example. And so when we think about soft power, we tend to look at different factors or different tools of power such as cultural influence, ideology, and institutional appeal. It all relies on the power to attract. It's more than just influence. It's really a way to have a nation, by exerting soft power, help shape the rest of the world to its advantage. When we talk about soft power, we have to include the biggest example of soft power being American soft power. And by that I mean three aspects. Liberal democratic politics, free market economy, and fundamental values and rights, including human rights, freedom of speech, et cetera. And many societies around the world since the 1990s have tried to adapt to these notions of soft power. And the Chinese for sure, when they held their 2008 Beijing games, their slogan was harmony. And it's an interesting, um, uh, slogan given that the Olympics are really about competition.

SIERRA: Right. (laughs)

MOON: But the emphasis on harmony was intended to signal to the rest of the world, to the outside world, that they need not fear China's rise. That China's rise will be peaceful and harmonious. Will bring people together and that it doesn't have to be riddled with, contestation and potential violence the way that some in the National Security Establishment in the United States have feared or still fear China's rise to be.

SIERRA: So, in the context of the Olympics, there also seems to be a crossover between soft power and, you know, maybe what everyday people would think of as just branding.

MOON: I think branding of course, countries try to do all the time, but um, soft power has to have some greater purpose than just selling goods. 

SIERRA: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MOON: Let's use South Korea as an example. The 2018 winter Olympics. 

ABC: 0:26-0:32 The South Korean Government saying they see preparations for another ballistic missile test from North Korea.


CBC: 2:16-2:26 So why are the Olympics so important for a potential diplomatic opening? If history is any guide, when it comes to the Koreas, sport is one of the few ways to break the ice. 


MOON: President Moon Jae-In of South Korea at the time really wanted to use the Olympics for two purposes. One was to entice North Koreans, the North Korean regime, to open up. To come and witness the possibilities of a good life. A good society. A life of plenty in South Korea. And then a second related point or goal being a message to North Korea that you too can have this. This is not just ours. You can share. If you transform your political/economic orientation. And so the goal was not to sell a South Korean product or promote a South Korean industry per se, which would really be about branding. But really to transform a reality of military tension and mistrust into one of possible reconciliation, cooperation, and hopefully peace in the longer run. And I would say that's a grander scheme, but the problem there is that North Korea doesn't really have a weakness. At least not yet, for the soft power appeal of other countries. They've been able to withstand and basically say, "No, thank you," to many of the enticing aspects of Chinese economic boom and the land of plenty compared to North Korea. They know what's going on in the South and they say, "No, thank you." They know what's going on in Japan in terms of wealth and influence and they say, "No, thank you."

So I think the part of international relations scholarship and policy making around soft power misses this point. That in order for soft power to be effective, you need to have willing followers. You need to have willing - meaning not coerced, you need to have a certain spirit of volunteerism toward transformation and adaptation. North Korea is not a good candidate for that. I think a lot of people develop quite a bit of hope that something positive, nothing specific, but something positive could happen. But in retrospect it looks like South Korea worked really hard without getting that much in return. So president Moon Jae-In is getting a lot of criticism in his own country for looking like a fool. For having been allegedly naïve. And I think that's a very harsh criticism because his intentions were very good and actually there were signs that the two Koreas might be able to move toward some sort of cooperation or at least reduced hostilities. In retrospect, um, you know, we can just easily say it didn't matter, but who knows? Perhaps in 5, 10 years time, we may look at Pyeongchang Olympics as the-the seed that was planted in the middle of winter that grew into something more fruitful.

Interpretations of the soft powers and branding potential of the Olympics will vary. But one thing is beyond doubt. Alongside symbols of unity and pure athletic achievement, the Olympics are political. 

SIERRA: So looking back through history, what do you see as some of the most interesting Olympic games from a geopolitical perspective?

BOYKOFF: Oh, wow. There's just so many, right from the beginning uh, that had geopolitical implications. I think the ones that are probably most known to the general public would certainly be the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. If we think about those Olympics at the time, Hitler was just marshaling power and he was no fan of the Olympics it turned out, uh. But his propaganda minister Goebbels put the pressure on him and said, "Oh, you're you gotta listen to this Hitler, this is an incredible opportunity to spread the gospel of Nazi-ism to the entire world." Hitler listened and decided, okay, we'll make this thing happen. And those games were used as a way of making it seem as if what was happening in Germany was normal when it was anything. And in the end, the United States went and in some ways it turned out to be a positive thing for the athletes like Jesse Owens, who showed that Hitler's theory of white supremacy was just Hocus Pocus as Hitler had to stand there while athlete after athlete Black athlete, after Black athlete from the United States was successfully hauling in the metals. So that one is certainly one of them, but I think you could kinda go through time and look at just about every Olympics and talk about their geopolitical implications. Some of the ones more recently that have generated a lot of discussion would certainly be the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, as well as the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and you could argue 1980 in Moscow as well. This was at the height of the cold war when the Olympics were essentially being used as a proxy for a battlefield where the athletes from the United States and the Soviet Union were going head to head in the Olympics. And of course there was a lot more at stake than just medals. It was pride, it was standing in the international world system. And so you can look at pretty much every Olympics through the history of the games and think about them through a geopolitical lens.

One way to see just how geopolitically charged the olympics have been is to take a look at its long history of boycotts. While the United States did participate in Hitler’s games - many Jewish athletes from around the world refused to. Later, in 1976, a total of 28 nations, including most of the sovereign countries in Africa, boycotted the Montreal games to protest Apartheid in South Africa. In 1980, at the height of the cold war, the United States led 66 nations into a boycott of the summer games in Moscow. The Soviet Union did something similar with their own allies four years later. The list goes on. 

SIERRA: Well, I mean, going off of all of this you know, the IOC claims that the Olympics are nonpolitical, but it seems like they've always been at least partly political. So how realistic is that stated goal? 

BOYKOFF: The Olympics groan under the weight of an unreckoned political history, deep contradictions are nestled at the core of the entire Olympic project. When anybody who takes a second to look at the games knows that they're eminently political from top to bottom. I mean, when it comes to politics, the International Olympic Committee is living in the past. Whereas politically minded Olympic athletes are rooted in the present and they're thinking about the future. And so to deny their ability to speak out on the most important issues of our time is to squelch their individuality and to squelch their political descent. 

So to step back and we think at this iconic moment of Olympic activism from the 1968 Olympics, where John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on the medal stand in Mexico city and thrust their black glove fists into the sky during the national Anthem, while the Australian sprinter, Peter Norman stood by a silver medalist with an Olympic project for human rights button on standing in solidarity with the athletes, that's become an iconic moment of Olympic history. And it's also even bigger than that. It's an iconic moment of world history. And when that happened, the International Olympic Committee realized that they needed to fortify the rules within their Olympic charter to quell that kind of activity. After 1968 is when they really get it down in clear writing and they create a rule that's embedded in the Olympic charter that prohibits political activism inside or around Olympic venues.

If you fast forward to today you have numerous athletes that are speaking out on issues. So you take Gwen Berry, the U.S. hammer thrower who put a fist in the air reminiscent of Smith and Carlos, when she was on the medal stand at the 2019 Pan American Games, same for Race Imboden, the U.S. fencer who took a knee at those same 2019, Pan Am Games in Chile. And after that happened, the International Olympic Committee essentially doubled down. And earlier this year in January issued special rules that were meant to fortify and be more specific to the rule that's in the Olympic charter forbidding dissent. And the new guidelines that were issued in January by the International Olympic Committee made it clear that hand gestures or kneeling on the podium was forbidden. 

These new rules can seem a bit ironic, especially considering the fact that in 2019, the US Olympic Hall of Fame inducted Smith and Carlos in recognition of their iconic protest. The fact that the IOC is sticking with its ban has prompted many critics to say they are out of step with the times, and particularly with other large sporting organizations that have changed their rules to allow for dissent.  

MOON: There is always a political context if not a political goal or reasoning around participation or lack of participation in the Olympics. 

SIERRA: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MOON: And I think, uh, what's ironic is that the 2018 Pyeongchang games was about the most blatantly political, on a diplomatic level at least, very blatantly political, Olympic event because of the North/South temporary rapprochement at the games. So, you know, it's not really fair to say that you can't have protests, but you can have diplomacy or diplomatic effort. As far as people's, uh, desire to protest at Olympic venues, I think that right now we are in a world where protest has become almost a norm in societies that are still allowed to protest. 

You know, I think we have to remember that the Olympics, the Olympic games themselves are a value or ideal-driven event. And I look at the Olympics a bit like the recent U.S. SpaceX launch. I was really surprised to see so many people on the NASA website from around the world congratulating the astronauts, congratulating the space program, and saying that we are with you at a time when the United States is so unpopular and is really in an embarrassing situation on the global stage. So, the Olympics is a bit like that. That it says something to people that, "Oh my goodness. We can do this!" "Wow. I would like to do this." And I think it's a wonderful thing to see human excellence and for the athletes of course, that is what they are striving for.

So when Professor Moon mentioned SpaceX, this memory jumped into my head. It happened more than a year ago, on this podcast, when we spoke with NASA administrator Charles Bolden, and he said something I’ll never forget. 

He told me about the awe he experienced the first time he saw the earth from space, a world without borders, a world, in his words, “as it should be, rather than the way it is.” 

The Olympics, for all their problems, give us perspective. Every two years we get to see the nations of the world in competition without violence. Like the view from the international space station, this insight doesn’t fix any particular global problem. Still, it’s hard to measure the importance of the view itself, and what the world might look like without it.

Want to dive deeper with three and a half somersaults into the Olympics? Think of CFR.org as your starting line to run the extra mile with more content to read and watch. 

Interested in saying hi to the Why It Matters team? You can always reach out on email at [email protected]

If you are a fan, subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. And if you think we are a winning team, leave us a review! 

Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria and our summer intern is Wynne Dieffenbach. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Teagan Judd and Rafaela Siewert provided research and extra help on this episode so in our books, they both scored the gold. 

Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. 

For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra, signing off see you at the finish line! Ok I'm done, promise (Laughs). 

More Episodes

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is fraught with complications. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world, giving it influence over what Americans pay at the...

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is fraught with complications. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world, giving it influence over what Americans pay at the...

Read More

Beware, coffee lovers: climate change could disrupt your precious morning cup of joe. Coffee beans could lose half of their farmable land by 2050 as temperatures and...

Beware, coffee lovers: climate change could disrupt your precious morning cup of joe. Coffee beans could lose half of their farmable land by 2050 as temperatures and...

Read More

Hip-hop is a phenomenon that has captured hearts around the world. Its musical form ranges from party anthems to critical social commentary. But the genre plays anot...

Hip-hop is a phenomenon that has captured hearts around the world. Its musical form ranges from party anthems to critical social commentary. But the genre plays anot...

Read More

For the past two thousand years, the pope has been a major player in global affairs. He is frequently called upon to act as a peace broker, a mediator, an advocate, ...

For the past two thousand years, the pope has been a major player in global affairs. He is frequently called upon to act as a peace broker, a mediator, an advocate, ...

Read More

In this special episode, Why It Matters follows up with CFR President Richard Haass to hear his insights on the war in Ukraine.

In this special episode, Why It Matters follows up with CFR President Richard Haass to hear his insights on the war in Ukraine.

Read More

For years, large corporations have exploited international tax laws to pay less taxes. But last year, 137 countries backed a potential solution: a 15 percent corpora...

For years, large corporations have exploited international tax laws to pay less taxes. But last year, 137 countries backed a potential solution: a 15 percent corpora...

Read More

How can the world create better medicines? More powerful solar cells? New batteries? The answers could come from a revolutionary research tool known as the quantum c...

How can the world create better medicines? More powerful solar cells? New batteries? The answers could come from a revolutionary research tool known as the quantum c...

Read More

The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change. One inescapable and irreversible consequence is sea-level rise, which could destroy coastal cities. Ho...

The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change. One inescapable and irreversible consequence is sea-level rise, which could destroy coastal cities. Ho...

Read More

In this special episode, Why It Matters sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to ask the basic questions about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Pu...

In this special episode, Why It Matters sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to ask the basic questions about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Pu...

Read More

The world is moving toward electric vehicles and clean energy, but a green future doesn’t depend on wind turbines, solar panels, and Teslas alone. It will also requi...

The world is moving toward electric vehicles and clean energy, but a green future doesn’t depend on wind turbines, solar panels, and Teslas alone. It will also requi...

Read More

Top Stories on CFR


Russia’s moves to mobilize thousands more troops and to annex more of Ukraine’s territory signal a new, potentially more dangerous phase of the war.

Puerto Rico

The Caribbean island, which shares a close yet fraught relationship with the rest of the United States, faces a multilayered economic and social crisis rooted in long-standing policy and compounded by natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, migration, and government mismanagement.

Censorship and Freedom of Expression

Suzanne Nossel, the Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss growing threats around the world to free expression and how the fight to protect human rights needs to adapt to succeed in a world of great power competition.